Educating the Public on the Public’s Terms: An Open Letter to Academics

By Peter Smagorinsky

Photo Credit: Lou Rocco/ABC News

Dr. Richard Besser on Good Morning America

 

I recently visited with a friend from my old high school. In spite of his having gone into a very different line of work, he has taken a career pathway that I think could be very instructive for teachers in schools and universities. Although I always knew him as Rich Besser, he’s known more widely as Richard E. Besser, M.D., Chief Health and Medical Editor for ABC News.

Rich was a highly successful doctor, academic, and public health administrator who now spends his time taking his message about public health to the people on ABC’s Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer. He’s even known to appear on The View and other venues that he never imagined himself appearing on when he was taking throat cultures and figuring out the causes of ear aches.

Why does a distinguished medical professional spend a good bit of his time on camera? Because, he said, TV is where many people, and perhaps most, get their news. It’s his job to educate the populace about their health, and he takes his message anywhere that might inform the public about how to live a more salutary life.

Doing so requires something of him that is beyond the capacity of many physicians: the ability to explain complex medical issues in plain, accessible language. Often, doctors get so bogged down in medical terminology that a sore throat gets explained to patients as an instance of Arcanobacterium haemolyticum. That language might work with other doctors in the practice, but patients need an explanation in terms they can comprehend, not something so steeped in professional jargon that it is incomprehensible to the person who needs the information the most.

My conversation with Rich, I think, has implications for literacy educators. We teachers, especially in universities, spend much of our time speaking with each other in our specialized vocabularies. Instead of saying that people can learn a lot by talking through a topic, we might say that our discursive practices are facilitated through dialogic interactions (Bakhtin, 1981) that alleviate power differentials (Foucault, 1976; cf. Derrida, 1978) such that exploratory talk (Barnes, 1991) generates new knowledge through the conundrum of epistemic paradoxes.

The public, however, is less interested in the history of ideas and more interested in their practical implications, and thus simply need something more plainspoken, such as the idea that opportunities for discussion potentially generate new insights, while monologues tend to treat knowledge as fixed and beyond inquiry or interrogation.

Speaking so obscurely limits the number of people who are willing to read what we write. Since academia is often satisfied with making the greatest impression on other academics, writing in technical language is well received by people within the field. And if colleagues have agreed with an author’s points, then that effect has been sufficient, even if the same ideas rarely resonated outside the echo chamber within which they have been written.

The problem is that when we only publish and read one another’s articles written in language that only we understand, and assign them to our students to be discussed under our guidance, we remain within this chamber, secure from the public and its plainspoken forum. From the outside, that chamber appears impenetrable and self-sustaining while having little impact on the actual world of how educational policies come into being and get institutionalized in schools. The metaphor of the ivory tower, after all, is not used to characterize academics with respect and admiration, but to depict their isolation from reality.

Of course, we also have no money to put behind our ideas, which means that politicians are free to ignore us. But when we speak such that others can’t understand our ideas, it’s hardly a surprise that we are dismissed from the debate as irrelevant eggheads more concerned with our publications than with kids, teachers, parents, taxpayers, and schools.

We are also taught to view the public forum as someone else’s domain. Our world is the world of academic journals and impact factors, of grants and contracts, of getting referenced, of making it onto other professors’ syllabi. But, as Rich Besser said, the average person (or politician) does not read medical journals, or research in literacy education. People get their information from the media.

And that’s where, as a profession, we have been derelict in our duties. As Rich said in a followup note to our conversation, “The key point is that if the goal is to educate the public you have to speak the public’s language and meet them where they are.  It’s the respectful approach.”

I write this essay to encourage my fellow academics to consider the implications of working only within the echo chamber of our journals, conferences, and classes. I’m not discouraging anyone from writing scholarly articles; I do it myself all the time, and it’s given me the platform from which to write for the public. But in the last few years I’ve begun expanding my writing to the local media in hopes of communicating clearly and directly with the public, the voters, the politicians who get their information from newspapers, and others who are more likely to watch The View than read Research in the Teaching of English.

I also make this plea as a full professor who has become somewhat bulletproof over time. I recognize that assistant professors and others with less security are wise to focus on writing that produces security rather than writing that invites lower status. K-12 teachers are particularly vulnerable, especially in schools in which dissent is interpreted as poor citizenship. Teachers especially might be restricted to writing “good news” pieces, a genre that advances their school’s reputation. I’ve written many such pieces myself, occasionally with teachers, school administrators, and community educators as coauthors.

I happen to be belligerent enough to withstand the withering criticism that comes from writing for a public with access to anonymous commenting, a form of blowback that many potential authors find intimidating and discouraging. Not everyone is quite prepared for the ferocity with which people express themselves behind the security of a pseudonym, and I don’t wish to underestimate this factor in people’s reticence in going public.

But if we don’t make these points, it’s unlikely that they will be made in the arena in which decisions get made. That leaves the project of shaping public opinion to people who do not understand our field the way we do, and by “we” I mean all educators and knowledgeable stakeholders, from parents to school board members. I hope you consider the possibility that you can have a voice in the public debate so that however policy becomes formed, it at least has access to your perspective.

 
Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. His public essays are archived at http://smago.coe.uga.edu/vita/vitaweb.htm#OpEd

12 thoughts on “Educating the Public on the Public’s Terms: An Open Letter to Academics

  1. You are so right, Peter! It is imperative that we speak out and speak clearly to the audience that needs to hear the perspective we bring to public awareness. I’ve enjoyed in the past few years having “Advocate Night” in my graduate Teachers as Leaders class. Each of us picks an educational passion and sets about to inform the public (usually politicians, School Boards, etc.)–via emails, letters to the editor, letters to Congressional representatives. [Of course, I do this too!] This year three of us were published in the local newspapers and one teacher was the subject of a local television channel.

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of accessible language.

    Best,
    Carol

  2. Pingback: Professors as Public Intellectuals: A Reader | the becoming radical

  3. Thanks, Peter. Even public school teachers face the same translation struggle when writing (or speaking) for the wider public. That’s one reason I created the website http://teachersspeakup.com . I convinced the Chicago Sun-Times to run a bi-weekly series of essays by teachers that I have recruited for them. One of my main tasks is to help teachers not only avoid their education jargon, but on the positive side to include vivid stories of kids’ learning in their classrooms, to bring our work to life for the public. People don’t realize the complex challenge of the work, nor the power it exerts when it’s successful. Go to the Chicago Sun Times website and search for “Summer School” to see the great essays published so far. And readers, make this happen with the news media in your location!

  4. Peter, you clearly and thoughtfully make the point that if educators want to have any impact on the public and readers, then we have to communicate well in language that is accessible to wide audiences. Many thanks for writing this piece.
    Chris

  5. Dear Peter,
    A spot on piece, and I have seen this argued by those of you who have the power and voice (translation: tenure and job security), but I don’t see much changing in the field. As an inner city high school teacher who transitioned to teaching community college English after receiving my EdD, I constantly feel the pressure to write exclusively for peer reviewed journals and that any other writing I do (blog, Huffington Post, op-ed in the Times, even book chapters) is invalid for tenure.

    Also, there is very much pressure to write the positive and not the failures due to the culture of education slandering today.

    It is frustrating.

    But I appreciate your public cry.

    Best,
    Lori

  6. Peter, YOU WROTE:
    “I also make this plea as a full professor who has become somewhat bulletproof over time. I recognize that assistant professors and others with less security are wise to focus on writing that produces security rather than writing that invites lower status.”

    Although I strongly agree with the need you expressed to communicate our ideas and research results in language accessible to the public, I disagree with the statement above. I too played the “publish or perish” game and won full professorship. But when I came to the University of Georgia in 1982, the state was near the bottom in virtually all educational ratings, and it remains so today. The vast majority of the research journal articles that you, our colleagues, and I have published over the decades have not had any discernible positive impact on the students and teachers in our state. Why should we encourage assistant professors and graduate students to continue to play this game when it is only those in the academy who benefit? We control this game. We should have the courage to change it when we know in our hearts that it is not making a difference to anyone outside the “ivory tower.” Imagine if the senior faculty and leadership in our College of Education declared a ten-year moratorium on publishing in traditional research journals and instead redirected our efforts toward a robust research and development agenda focused on the real needs of learners in Georgia’s schools? We would still publish our findings, but would do so in open-access refereed journals. There are role models for this type of radical change. For example, consider Professor Randy Schekman from the University of California, Berkeley, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2013. In the same week he won the most prestigious award for scientific achievement, he announced that his Berkeley lab would no longer submit papers to closed-access journals such as Nature, Cell and Science. He characterized such publication outlets as “luxury journals” that artificially limit the capacity of scientists to share their work. He is now the editor-in-chief of eLife, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal for the biomedical and life sciences. There has been much criticism of Schekman from defenders of traditional science journals, but also a great deal of support within the biosciences research community for the kind of radical changes he has promoted. You are well placed to lead such a similar revolution at the University of Georgia. I would be honored to help you in any way I can.
    – Tom Reeves, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, The University of Georgia

  7. Thanks, Peter, for this post as well as for all that you do when advocating for and with teachers.

    A few questions for you… that I ask in all sincerity (though they could be taken sarcastically, too, and I don’t mean them that way).

    Despite the many forms of media for advocacy that we have at our disposal — including your column as well as this and many other blogs, Twitter chats, YouTube channels, podcasts, and more — how do you suggest that we, as educators, even try to enter the conversation on shows such as Good Morning America or The View?

    At what point will education reach the level of concern as public health and, in turn, be featured in mass media? Besides bad tests scores, what else is really going to “bleed” enough to “lead” in a mass media story?

    How, when it is the mass media that has strategically aligned itself with other corporate interests (via advertising), can we expect them to invite us on their shows when we — through resistance to pre-packaged curriculum, standardized tests, and corporate-based reforms — are exactly the opposite of the kinds of guests they are looking for?

    I would, sincerely, be interested in hearing your thoughts on this. I have tried to reach out to our local public radio station and gotten only a lukewarm reception, despite NPR’s great record on education reporting. I can’t imagine that my local CBS, NBC, ABC, or Fox affiliate would have any interest in talking to me at all. How could I get the to become interested?

    Thanks for your continued advocacy efforts, Peter, and for sharing your thoughts on these questions.

    Troy

    • Troy–
      I’ve made some progress in Chicago with the Sun-Times newspaper, which is regularly publishing teachers essays. Kevin Hodgson established a similar partnership with the local paper in the Amherst, MA area. Peter gets his great teacher portraits published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s education reporter blog. Check out my blog posts on all this at http://teachersspeakup.com . I think we need to try every possible medium & get as many teachers as possible writing and speaking, and not give up. I pestered editors at both Chicago papers for a year before I got somewhere.

  8. Troy posted his questions on another forum. I’m pasting in a two-part reply I sent to that group.

    Troy, thanks for asking. I’ll answer your questions in turn. Just one person’s perspective, of course, and I hope that your questions prompt others to chime in.

    1. how do you suggest that we, as educators, even try to enter the conversation on shows such as Good Morning America or The View?
    I never said that these forums were easily available to us. Rather, Rich Besser, who is contracted with ABC News, gets on ABC TV shows. In no way did I say or imply that such programs would book us. We would need either ABC contracts, agents, or viewer-attracting reputations on shows that have features on topics that viewers would tune in to watch.

    I do know that Dorothy Espelage, a bullying researcher at Illinois, has appeared on Oprah. Bullying is a hot topic, and Dorothy is sufficiently visible to be higher ed’s expert representative. So I guess the best way to get on those shows (something I haven’t done, although I was twice interviewed on Oklahoma City TV on standardized testing when I taught at OU) is to do the kind of high-level work on a topic that draws viewers, while also developing a public profile that gives you at least a modest recognition-factor with lay people, to be on a programming director’s radar.

    2. At what point will education reach the level of concern as public health and, in turn, be featured in mass media? Besides bad tests scores, what else is really going to “bleed” enough to “lead” in a mass media story?
    Look at the news: bullying, school violence, and other bad news. I’m less sanguine about good news becoming something that the networks want to put on TV.

    Keep in mind as well that policymakers tend to promote people and perspectives that agree with what they already believe. So having a contrary view will simply make you anti-reform, anti-children, pro-union, etc., which is how the trolls who follow the Atlanta paper’s education blog characterize me every time I write. These responses are vigorously offered when I say the most benign things, such as saying that teachers know more about teaching than policymakers and thus should have a greater voice than people who’ve never taught.

    3. How, when it is the mass media that has strategically aligned itself with other corporate interests (via advertising), can we expect them to invite us on their shows when we — through resistance to pre-packaged curriculum, standardized tests, and corporate-based reforms — are exactly the opposite of the kinds of guests they are looking for?
    I never said it’d be easy, nor did I say that getting on TV is likely. Rather, I said that a telegenic, high-profile (former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), amiable friend of mine had moved from that position to ABC-contracted public health advocate.

    4. I can’t imagine that my local CBS, NBC, ABC, or Fox affiliate would have any interest in talking to me at all. How could I get the to become interested?
    Nobody on TV, at least since the mid 1990s in OK, has been interested in me either. If I end up on TV, it’ll be because I’ve written a lot of essays for the Atlanta paper. That visibility has gotten me invited to community events (some hosted by tea party activists who are anti-CCSS) and state-wide meetings, attention from education-oriented politicians, a personal meeting with my university president (the only time he’d ever wanted to speak with me–very positive, I should add)–that is, much more visibility than I had before I began writing public essays in 2010. My goal is not to be on TV but to do what I’m good at–write essays–that I’m told boost teacher morale and at least get policymakers’ attention, if not direct action. I was recently told that I’m one of 3 people in Georgia known for public advocacy for education–the other 2 are fulltime journalists (weekly columns in state newspapers). So TV is but one medium. Have I made a difference? Not in policy–Georgia’s too stacked against me in terms of overwhelming conservative values. But I get a lot of appreciative notes from various people for raging against the machine and have been told that many of my essays end up in school staffrooms because they let teachers know that someone out there values their work and believes in them.

    Keep in mind that I’ve only been doing this for 4 years, and in that time have gotten more attention from people in power than I ever did in the preceding 20+ years of writing journal articles. I still write journal articles, don’t get me wrong. But they have made zero impact outside university courses and some teachers’ classrooms.

    I’ll close with the conclusion to something that’ll appear in Paul Thomas’s EJ column, in 2015 I think. It provided the basis for what I presented at a session that Steve Zemelman (who’s doing a terrific job in this area) put together at last year’s conference. Steve’s organized teachers in the Chicago area into writing groups that are publishing essays in Chicago-area papers, and has done a TED talk–not TV, but as I understand it, possibly watched more than much TV, at least by younger people for whom TV is just one of many media options.

    Here’s how I close the article, which is written to encourage teachers to write (and teachers, rather than people in higher ed, are Steve’s target population to give them a voice in the public debate):
    To Write or Not to Write: What are the Consequences?
    If you don’t have a voice in the public debate, the sky will not fall; life and school will go on. But if you don’t have a voice, then someone else’s will take your place. Whose perspective would you prefer? If it’s not a teacher or teacher advocate, then you may position yourself as helpless against a tidal wave of political mandates that control your teaching and your school.
    Unfortunately, you may feel that way even if you do write. But like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after claiming he could lift an immensely heavy object and failing, you can ultimately say, “But I tried, didn’t I? Goddammit, at least I did that.” And who knows, depending on the issue, your views may produce material changes in your work environment or contribute to the aggregate of opinions that collectively produce shifts in opinion about the work we care so much about.

    Since writing this morning, I got a note from Alan Brown, an NCTE member who’s an assistant professor at Wake Forest U and author of several essays in NC newspapers (online). I’ll paste in what he wrote below; the link to his essay is at http://www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org/home-2/whats-new/scholars-corner/. I’m adding Alan’s essay and link because he’s very early in his career, yet is being consulted by legislators because he’s written for the public in ways that make his points without throwing haymakers at dissenters.

    It’s not TV, but it’s something. p

    Brown, Alan <brownma@…>
    Peter,
    Here is my latest editorial.
    See the e-mail message below to view the Public Schools First NC newsletter. The editorial can be found under the scholar’s corner on the bottom right.
    The final version of my editorial can also be found here.
    http://www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Case-for-Teacher-Assistants-in-K-3-Classrooms.pdf
    Here is the link to Public Schools First NC: http://www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org/

    As always, thanks for the inspiration to continue writing for the public.

    Best,

    Alan

  9. Thanks, Tom, for your thoughtful reply (others too, of course). I have mixed feelings about your proposal to abandon refereed journals in favor of open-access. I say that as someone who’s published in both mediums. I think that refereed journals are less exclusive in access than they were just a few years ago. We can all upload our work to Academia.org and Research Gate for free download; and people with university library access can get most of what they want as pdf. I think that the issue of access is changing rather rapidly. But access of language is a different matter. Even if people could get hold of articles in research journals, would they understand the technical language that is essential for communicating with other researchers, but paralyzing for lay readers? Researchers’ jobs are designed to provide time to read and digest; lay people tend to want something brief and to the point and clear, because they are reading in a pinch. So I am not arguing for either at the expense of the other, but both as necessary means of communicating to both specialized and lay readers, the latter category including voters and legislators.

  10. There’s a parallel discussion going on in the NCTE Connected Community. I added something there that I’ll paste in below; and Michael Moore’s post is also included below.

    ——————————————-
    Original Message:
    Sent: 07-27-2014 06:36
    From: Peter Smagorinsky
    Subject: essay at writers who care

    One more example: Angela Valenzuela, who teaches at UT-Austin and advocates very strongly for Latin@ immigrants and native-born residents who are treated poorly, spends a lot of time at the capitol agitating for her constituents. She’s well positioned because she lives and works in the state capitol so isn’t spending too much time on the road, as I’d need to do to do something similar in GA (Athens is 75 miles from ATL and the traffic is terrible). That’s not to underestimate or underrepresent her dedication and time commitment, just to qualify it for those of us who are located on the outskirts. It’s another tool in the kit for people who want to make a difference in policy.

    ——————————————-
    Peter Smagorinsky
    Athens GA
    smago@…
    ——————————————-

    From: Michael Moore

    To: Spokesperson’s Network

    Posted: Jul 28, 2014 10:56 AM
    Subject: RE: essay at writers who care
    Message:

    One suggestion is to keep an eye on national issues as the media is always looking for comment on stories they’ve recently printed. For example the recent Vergara teacher tenure case in California provided a good opportunity to comment about public school teacher tenure. I sent an editorial to the Savannah Morning News and the editor found a counter editorial from a California paper and published a point counterpoint in the Sunday edition. That was picked up and published in a number of other places. The NYer last week had a feature article on the Atlanta Testing debacle which provided an opportunity to write about testing. The Savannah Morning News has published my column for several years now and I am always surprised at where the column ends up. The SMN is owned by Morris News Agency and tends to shop columns to other newspapers all over the place. Additionally, I’ll receive comments from all over the country depending on the issue. This has also led to several invitations to speak at teacher groups and honorary organizations and civic groups. These groups are much larger than the groups that come to my sessions at professional meetings.

    Like Peter, far more people read these columns than have ever read my pieces in academic journals. In fact, the national debate on teacher evaluations, testing, the common core and so forth never seems to include any of the research we see in academic journals. No one is reading the academic stuff except us.

    ——————————————-
    Michael Moore
    Statesboro GA
    mmoore@…
    ——————————————-

  11. Pingback: Blogiversary: Reflections on the First Year and Plans for Next | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

Leave a Reply